What Makes an Artist an Artist?

An artist at work. (photo by Mike Baird, via Flickr)
An artist at work. (photo by Mike Baird, via Flickr)

The question of who, exactly, is an artist — what that word means, who defines herself by it — has always been a tricky one. All sorts of surveys purport to the tell us the number of artists in the US, from the government census to independent initiatives, but the terms of the discussion have never been entirely clear. Are artists self-defined? Must they make money off their creative work (a certain amount)? What kinds of creative work count? Can you be a professional artist if you spend 30 hours a week doing something besides making art?

Each survey defines “artist” in its own way and then moves on with its results, but a new study in the journal Poetics takes up the root question itself: “Who is an artist? New data for an old question,” by sociologists Jennifer C. Lena and Danielle J. Lindemann. Lena and Lindemann look at data collected in the 2010 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project survey as a means of exploring the confusion over who or what constitutes an artist. As they write in their abstract:

In this study, we explore the ‘‘professional artist’’ as the outcome of an identity process, rendering it the dependent rather than the independent variable. In their responses to the 2010 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project survey (N=13,581)—to our knowledge, the largest survey ever undertaken of individuals who have pursued arts degrees in the United States—substantial numbers of respondents gave seemingly contradictory answers to questions asking about their artistic labor. These individuals indicated that they simultaneously had been and had never been professional artists, placing them in what we have termed the ‘‘dissonance group.’’ An examination of these responses reveals meaningful differences and patterns in the interpretation of this social category.

Specifically, Lena and Lindemann home in on a group of 3,816 respondents to the SNAAP survey who said they had worked in the arts but never been professional artists. Now, of course, there are plenty of arts jobs that don’t involve the actual production of art, yet the pair identified many writers, architects, musicians, photographers, and more — that is, people who create artistic products — that fell into this group. “Clearly, for many respondents, there is a disjuncture between ‘work as a professional artist’ and ‘work in [artistic occupation],'” the pair write. Why?

They go on to examine various possible answers: the SNAAP survey specifically states that teachers do not qualify as artists, a distinction to which a number of respondents object; designers constitute a fuzzy “boundary group,” with some of them identifying as artists and others not; people have faulty memories. But Lena and Lindemann’s strongest contender, and the one on which they put their money, is the idea of embeddedness and cultural capital — that people who grow up with artist parents or relatives, attend specific arts schools (rather than just programs), and work mostly in arts-related jobs feel more comfortable identifying as professional artists. “There is something that arts graduates get in their lives, through their connections with other artistic individuals, that contributes to the salience of their ‘artist’ identities,” Lena and Lindemann write. They continue:

We hypothesize that highly embedded art world members experience less ambiguity around their identity as artists, while those who only entered art-centered environments in their graduate training years experience more difficulty identifying as professional artists. Seeing one’s self as a professional artist is an achievement that compares to entering other elite status groups, in that advantages accrue to those with the implicit and explicit knowledge of group conventions, attitudes, habits, and ways of being and can remain beyond the reach of even those who are trained to belong.

Lena and Lindemann readily acknowledge that there’s lots more research to be done and that their conclusion is far from absolute — some people purposefully choose not to be embedded, for instance, and although the paper doesn’t mention this, it seems plausible to me that some people may associate the term “artist” specifically with visual art. But the sociologists are right in pointing out that if organizations want to target artists, and if governments want to use research data to shape policies geared towards them (both of which are already happening), it might help to first figure out who an artist is.

h/t Pacific Standard

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